Anytime you walk into the Colorado Avalanche locker room following a game and hear DMX blasting through the speakers, you know it has been a fun night at Pepsi Center. On this crisp Thursday night, it was downright special as the Avs returned from their unimpressive performance in the Global Series in Sweden and nabbed two points with a 6-2 beatdown over the Washington Capitals.
Led by a top line that combined for 12 points, the Avs continued their impressive run at home this season, moving to 6-1-1 on the season with the overtime loss coming against Ottawa in Stockholm. Captain Gabriel Landeskog led the way on the ice as he notched his first career hat-trick and got the Avalanche started off right with a goal just 17 seconds into the game. The hot start was something Colorado emphasized coming into the game.
"We wanted to come out aggressive tonight," forward Nathan MacKinnon said. "When all of us are shooting and skating and playing with a lot of authority, we're tough to handle. We all bring something different."
MacKinnon, Landeskog's centerman, tallied a career-high five points (1g, 4a) on the night and the third member of Colorado's powerful top trio, Mikko Rantanen, enjoyed a career-best as well with four points of his own (1g, 3a). Personal accolades aside, Colorado's biggest guns were more focused on getting back in the winning column after a three-game losing streak.
"We know the two points are the most important thing and we've been playing well here at home," Landeskog said. "We feel good playing at Pepsi Can. You heard them out there tonight, it's an unbelievable atmosphere and we love playing here. We knew this was a big game for us and obviously, we haven't played in a while and the Sweden trip didn't go as well as we wanted. This one felt good."
While they all took turns beating hapless Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer and went 1-2-3 as the night's Three Stars, it was ultimately Landeskog's night to shine as he scored in each period to keep the Avalanche ahead of an increasingly desperate Caps team. The power forward flashed his skill tonight in scoring in space, on a penalty shot in the second period, and in close late in the third to bring on the parade of hats from the adoring Pepsi Center crowd.
"We feel good as a line," Landeskog explained. "It all stems from hard work and it stems from wanting to be difference makers. I know what [Rantanen] brings and what [MacKinnon] brings and it's just about putting it together with hard work. That's what we've been doing."
The quest for redemption after last year's debacle is an ongoing process for this proud group and nights like tonight are a way for them to show not only the world but themselves they are on a path towards a brighter future.
"For us to become a winning hockey team, you've got to be able to turn the page on losses and the same thing on wins," Landeskog said of the team's bounce back. "We've got to enjoy this one here for another half-hour or hour and then get ready for a big road trip. We know that we've got to be better on the road and start stealing points on the road."
The Avalanche taking care of business at home has been one of the most encouraging signs of the young season as their six wins are almost halfway to last season's 13-win total in front of the home crowd.
"I just think we're more comfortable," MacKinnon said, echoing some of Landeskog's sentiments. "In a couple years past, we were better on the road, which was weird. I think we can take some of that jam we have here, some of that confidence, we have a little swagger here I think when we're not afraid to make plays and make a lot of good runs. It's obviously a good start."
The good start at home is part of the emphasis the team has placed on the process this season with a belief the results will follow if they stick to doing the little things.
"Honestly, I thought overall we had a couple shifts in the end of the second where we let them come back into the game but guys are blocking shots and winning battles and all these little things that don't show up on the score sheet," Landeskog said. "Compher is one of them and [Nieto] does it night in and night out and thought really had a great night."
The little things are vital to the success of the team but the big things, like, you know, scoring points also move the needle of success in the right direction and the team's highest-paid player has changed his approach this season in hopes of finding more consistent results.
"I'm just trying to be as aggressive as I can," MacKinnon stated. "I've figured out some of the process goals I have every game. For me, worrying about points is the worst thing I can do. I just try to focus on the process, I know that sounds cheesy. I know I'm paid to produce but when I do focus on that I feel like results will come. I trust my abilities and stay even keel. I can't drink the Kool-Aid."
That new focus comes after increased frustration in recent years of being too focused on what his numbers were and realizing the negative impact it was having on him.
"I evaluate and talk to [the coaches]," MacKinnon explained. "You're not going to have a great season by picturing a number, at least for me. I know some guys say 'I want to get 70 or 80' but for me, I just want to play the best I can and see what happens."
Having linemates with the all-around ability of Landeskog and Rantanen certainly helps, too, as he too frequently was saddled with trying to make the best of an overmatched trio last season. Instead of a wide-eyed rookie in Rantanen, he's getting the much-improved sophomore version and the images of Rene Bourque on his left wing have been replaced by the 200-foot effectiveness of Landeskog.
"Oh, absolutely," MacKinnon said with a laugh about playing next to those two. "[Landeskog] and [Rantanen] have been awesome to play with. [Landeskog] came up to our line for Chicago, we just got beat pretty badly by Vegas, and since then we've been playing pretty well and producing a lot of points."
With 14 points in his last seven games, producing a lot of points is right. That line combined for 17 shots against the Caps and has the three of the four highest scoring players on the team (injured defenseman Tyson Barrie is tied with Landeskog for third).
Always humble, Landeskog turned towards his equipment as his secret weapon on this night.
"I got a new batch of sticks that came in a couple days ago and felt good," he said with a smile. "I wanted to try them out in a game and it ended up working out."